Transforming media ecology and the Finnish case of right-wing populism

The mainstream public in Finland became aware of a right-wing populist movement with an outspoken anti-immigration and Islamophobic agenda in 2008 when a blogger, Jussi Halla-aho — the present chair of the Finns — gained electoral success as an independent candidate on the Finns (PS) list in the local elections in Helsinki.

Halla-aho’s rise to the top in Finnish politics is intriguing for media research. Before his electoral success in 2008, he was unknown by the mainstream public as there was hardly any mention of him in the national media (Horsti 2015, 357). This counters the common argument in media research on right-wing populism that mainstream media attention, although critical and negative, is crucial for the success of new political populists (Ellinas 2010; Stewart et al. 2003). In the case of Jussi Halla-aho, while mainstream journalism did not recognise the movement around him before 2008, he succeeded in reaching a constituency in the online ‘echo chambers’.

After his electoral success in 2008, traditional news values required the mainstream media to cover the political newcomer (see Norris 2009). Unlike in neighbouring Sweden, where the mainstream media categorically refused to include the right-wing populist Sweden Democrats among the regular political commentators, the Finnish media integrated Halla-aho into debates as the ‘immigration critique’ — a term the Finns Party preferred. The sudden rise of Halla-aho from ‘nowhere’ to electoral success — that is, his rise to politics through the unconventional path of blogging — illustrates the shift in the dynamics between the media and right-wing populism that began to take shape across Europe in late 2000s (Horsti & Nikunen 2013; Horsti 2015). However, it is also grounded in traditional news logic, such as the practice of covering a political newcomer and the practice of ‘objective’journalism that seeks to ‘balance’ the treatment of controversial topics. Halla-aho figured as the ‘immigration critique’ who ‘balanced’ more liberal views on multiculturalism and migration.

Jussi Halla-aho’s blog, Scipta, which he had started in 2005, began to attract a wide following and an active community of commentators who, in 2008, created a separate anti-immigration discussion forum named Hommaforum. Halla-aho introduced the Islamophobic narrative in Finland through his blog, and his message, combining nationalist and Islamophobic ideologies, was amplified in the internet echo chambers and with help of the ‘digital foot soldiers’ (Ha-takka 2019). At the time, the practice of anonymous online discussion on news and discussion sites had become popular. Simultaneously, however, mainstream media providers’ frustration over uncivil discussion on their anonymous discussion forums grew, and by about 2010, they began regulating online comments sections of news sites through pre-moderation, registration, and identification of commenters (Nikunen 2011, 71—73, 77). The tightening of anonymity and moderation in the Finnish mainstream media resulted in the number of comments in the threaded discussion spaces dropping (Poyhtari et al. 2013, 176). Debates among professional editors and journalists escalated, resulting in the self-governing body Council for Mass Media in Finland creating an annex to the journalists’ guidelines for monitoring the content generated by users in 2011. These transformations in the mainstream news sites, which reduced hate speech and racism online, nevertheless increased the appeal of sites like Hommaforum, where anti-immigration opinions and misogynist jokes flourished. This development characterises the typical trans-platform circulation of content in online spaces. Hommaforum is a prime example of a folk-cultural production model (Benkler 2006) — a more reflexive and participatory cultural production than that of the mass cultural production. The site’s architecture and structure invite participation and humour while allowing the members to be known only by their pseudonyms (Horsti 2015).

Halla-aho created his online presence at a time when politicians were not yet communicating directly with publics through social media platforms. Political blogs as a distinguished genre are often paradoxically positioned outside the traditional political sphere. Anyone is able to launch a blog as the technological equipment is easy to master. Like all social media, blogs as a medium are relatively uncontrolled and uncensored, so they enable publishing acrimonious criticism and adversarial opinions. For politicians it is valuable to be able to express opinions more freely than in traditional media (Saresma & Tulonen, 2020). Also, blogs as a medium are quicker and more flexible than the traditional media. As a genre, they allow the circulating of powerful, credible, and affective messages (Pettersson 2017, 6).

Halla-aho almost ceased his blogging after he took over the party leadership in 2017, reflecting a transformation from a political outsider into a political insider as the leader of the main opposition party. The recurring topics in his blog since 2005 connect to nationalism and severe opposition to immigration (particularly asylum seekers and refugees) and multiculturalism (Saresma & Tulonen, 2020). In a series of court cases, he gained public exposure for his writings from 2009 through 2012, and in 2012, he was convicted of blasphemy and ethnic agitation. Focus on clearly demarcated themes is an effective device in spreading propaganda, and repetition, which Halla-aho uses deliberately, is a typical means of populist communication (Taveira & Nyerges 2016).

Digitisation complicated the agenda-setting power of mainstream media, particularly by providing online spaces where news could be shared and discussed. It also contributed to a transformation of the media ecology. For instance, in Finland in 2009, the readership of the traditionally strong newspaper market dropped 10 percent compared to the previous year (Statistics Finland 2019). Digitisation and globalisation were forces that restructured journalism in Europe, including Finland. The boundary between journalistic content of edited opinions and non-edited contents became increasingly blurred, particularly because discussions around news shifted to echo chambers (Sunstein 2001): online spaces formed around web sites and blogs of nationalistic movements where like-minded individuals gather to exchange similar views.

However, this was only part of the story. Instead of dividing immigration debate into civil mainstream media spaces and aggressive online echo chambers, we suggest examining the media environment as a system of connectivities. This environment is a techno-cultural construct (van Dijck 2013), meaning that the connectivities and affordances emerge in the intersections of technology and human activity. The Hommajorum discussion space is an exemplary case in this respect. The architecture facilitated the construction of a community, creating a sense of belonging and commitment. This was particularly crucial for political mobilisation in the early phase of the movement before it gained electoral success and political power within the Finns Party.

The concept of a hybrid media system (Chadwick 2013) captures well the current situation, in which affordances of various media are utilised. This hybrid media system comprises traditional media, social media, and alternative or false media, and it enables various actors to participate in meaning making and knowledge production as well as dissemination and refraining of information (Hatakka 2019, 48). In the hybrid media system engendered by digital technologies, traditional news cycles are replaced by more dynamic information cycles (Suiter et al. 2018, 398), which may be an advantage for spreading misinformation, disinformation, and propaganda.

The case of the Finns Party public communication depicts the function of the hybrid media system and connectivity’ in an exemplary way. The Finns Party combined various media in their communication. They used traditional media, such as the party newspaper, which the older, agrarian conservatives trusted (Norocel et al., forthcoming) and paid campaign advertisement in legacy newspapers. The new radical right-wing anti-immigration faction, on the contrary, trusted much more communication on new social media platforms, such as blogs (Halla-aho’s Scriptd) and discussion forums (like Hommaforum). Halla-aho has also been active on Twitter and Facebook, and his comments spread to other media through these platforms.

Utilising the hybrid media system and the always alert ‘digital foot soldiers’, who willingly spread the message of their ‘master’, Halla-aho’s message is circulated, repeated, and amplified through multiple social media channels through a media system of connectivities. His message is based on the entanglement of oppressive ideologies that are central for right-wing populist mobilisation — Islamophobia and misogyny. In what follows, we will demonstrate their mediated construction and their transnational connections — however, rooting them in the particular Finnish context.

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >